Death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet exposes the decades-long failure of policing reform

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The death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet brought thousands out into the streets on the weekend in a scene never seen in Toronto. There have been other police custody deaths, but this one has touched a nerve. “I was really surprised to see how many young, white people were on the streets,” says Kikélola Roach, the Unifor Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University, whose father, Charles Roach, led civil rights marches against police violence in Toronto in the 70s. 

Asian-Canadians, Filipinx and Tamil-Canadians were at Saturday’s march, too. This could prove to be a watershed moment for the city – the country. The issue of anti-Black racism has reached the Cabinet table.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used his COVID-19 briefing on June 1 to tell young Black Canadians “I hear you when you say you are anxious and angry.” Public safety minister Bill Blair, Toronto’s former chief of police, also weighed in to say that “now is the time to unite and to act” on anti-Black racism. 

Riots across the U.S. over the death of George Floyd, yet another unarmed Black man killed at the hands of police, has focused attention on our own history of police violence. As Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s former minister of immigration and refugees noted in an emotional thread on Twitter, “anti-Black racism does not stop at the border.” 

The pandemic is causing us to re-evaluate all of our systems. And the tragic circumstances surrounding Korchinski-Paquet’s death is forcing us to consider what allyship with Black communities really means. 

We need a new model when it comes to policing – indeed, in society in general – policing reform advocates say.

What that might look like runs the gamut from the “abolition” of policing – an idea that sounds more radical than it really is – to unarmed civilians and other personnel taking up community-based functions on the street. It also includes everything from the deployment of officers to the communities they live in, to special units to deal with violent situations only when they occur. 

The truth for Black communities is that the current system isn’t working. Trust has been lost. Optimism can’t be relied on anymore.


HEADED IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Questions remain about how 29-year-old Korchinski-Paquet, who was reportedly experiencing a mental health crisis, could end up falling to her death from the 24th floor of a High Park Avenue apartment with six police officers in the room. There are conflicting reports about that.

But for representatives of the city’s Black community and beyond, Korchinski-Paquet’s death is just another tragic example among many in recent years – indeed, dating back decades – of why the systems put in place to better police minority communities aren’t working. 

We’ve spent millions training police on de-escalation techniques, anti-Black racism and on the use of less-lethal weapons in a bid to stem the bloodshed. Endless coroners’ inquests have made recommendations on how to address the problems. Now we’re outfitting police with body-worn cameras in the hope that it may check police/Black community interactions. At the same time, police are relying more on surveillance cameras to do their work in priority neighbourhoods.

Black people, meanwhile, continue to die and anti-Black racism persists. Black Torontonians are 20 times more likely than non-Black people to die in an encounter with police, according to one estimate.

“It’s dumbfounding,” says Urban Alliance on Race Relations president Nigel Barriffe. “We continue to go in the wrong direction.”

And police budgets keep sucking up more and more tax dollars – more than $1.076 billion this year in Toronto alone – as other city departments and social services buckle under the weight of cuts. 

There have been calls to claw back police budgets for more than a decade as crime rates in most major categories have gone down. (Break and enter, theft, assault and sexual assault numbers were down by 8, 9, 13 and 20 per cent, respectively, in 2019 compared to 2018). 

There has also been a lot of talk about “transformation” and the need for police to engage communities and do things differently. 

To that end, Mayor John Tory spokesperson Lawvin Hadisi points to the Neighbourhood Community Officer Program “to build positive relationships with people and communities,” the hiring in the last budget go-around of 40 “neighbourhood officers.” And the Youth In Policing Initiative “to connect with youth across the city and to teach them the important role that the police force plays in keeping Toronto safe.”

But police will tell you themselves that they are not social workers. So what’s the solution? 


AN ABOLITIONIST PERSPECTIVE

Black academics like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore in the U.S. have been calling for the defunding of police and “abolition” of the “prison industrial complex” for years. The idea is gaining popularity in Canada where three per cent of the population is Black, but where Black people make up 9 per cent of the federal prison system. 

“Abolition” doesn’t mean getting rid of police overnight, says Roach, but rather doing away with the conditions like lack of housing and food scarcity, which end up feeding the poverty-to-prison pipeline.

Racial justice lawyer Anthony Morgan, who joined the city’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism unit in 2018, argues that guns and gang violence are too often used to justify the high police presence in priority neighbourhoods, when the problem is really rooted in social disadvantage. He says that it should be left up to communities to determine what law enforcement looks like in their own neighbourhoods.

“At the end of the day, it’s their service. It’s funded through their tax dollars. The service should then be theirs to serve them.”

Versions of Morgan’s community-driven idea have been floated in the past in Toronto. Elements of it are already there in the city’s anti-Black racism action plan. 

But the systems of police oversight in place to hold police accountable, which is widely viewed as being secretive and pro-police, must also be overhauled, reformers say. The only question is whether there is the political will to do it. The reality is the Black community has been living with a pandemic of police violence for a long time, says Roach.

“It’s a ripe time for larger conversations. People are expecting fundamental change. We’re seeing across the board how so many of our systems are not protecting life.”

She adds that, “Different activists have been arguing for years we should be reducing the prison population. Thousands have been released safely back into the population because of the pandemic. It raises the question: why were they there in the first place?”

The whole system of public safety – and the role of police in it – has to be re-imagined, because we’re all bearing the costs, be they social or economic, argues  Black Lives Matter–Toronto co-founder Rodney Diverlus.

“If the COVID crisis has taught us anything, it’s the importance of transparency and actions. The financial impact will be devastating. Our budgets will be gutted. We as a city, as a province and as a country have to set new priorities. This is the new normal. We can continue to say the same things over and over again or we can use this moment for transformational change. We can’t afford to wait.”


A SYSTEM SET UP TO FAIL

The previous Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne had jarred the door open to a new paradigm in policing, turning over to cities the authority to develop community safety plans instead of leaving that power with police services boards. The Wynne government also introduced a historic overhaul of the system of police oversight, which had long been seen as secretive and pro-police. 

But those reforms were trashed by Doug Ford’s government in March 2019 on the eve they were scheduled to go into effect. “Police have our back. And now their government has theirs,” is how Sylvia Jones, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, put the reason for the decision.

“Black communities came out to rage and cry and ask for change, and then one election and all that was wiped away,” says Diverlus.

The move undid the adoption of dozens of recommendations made by Justice Michael Tulloch in his expansive 2017 report on police oversight and, in particular, the workings of the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the provincial watchdog charged with conducting probes into serious incidents involving police.  

Which is why so few policing observers have faith we will ever know what really led to Korchinski-Paquet falling to her death. 

The problems affecting policing and its accountability mechanisms are not about a few bad apples, as Tulloch noted in his report. They’re systemic. In a way, the system is practically set up to fail. 


“OUTRAGEOUS LIES”

In the Korchinski-Paquet death, police are already rewriting the narrative. 

Details leaked on Wednesday to the Toronto Sun alleging that Korchinski-Paquet barricaded herself on her balcony before falling to her death could only have come from police, says the family’s lawyer Knia Singh.

“I’m disappointed. The only way that story could have been written is that the witness officers or subject officers – or someone they shared the story with – shared it with the Sun. It’s highly irresponsible.”

Singh was caught completely off guard by the revelations and says the turn has caused him to lose faith in the SIU’s investigation. 

Despite being bound by law not to comment during an ongoing SIU probe, police chief Mark Saunders also weighed in on the death, calling a press conference on Friday afternoon to call allegations on social media about the police’s alleged involvement in Korchinski-Paquet’s fall “outrageous lies.” 

No one save for the officers in the apartment at the time knows for sure. But the chief went further to shape the narrative, saying that police were responding to an “assault” and that knives were involved. 

The remarks had the effect of deflecting attention from police actions, says former police services board chair Alok Mukherjee. In particular, why a nurse from the force’s mobile crisis response team wasn’t dispatched, as per protocol for people experiencing mental distress. As importantly, Saunders’ remarks also serve to colour the SIU’s investigation. 

“No one else said there was a conflict,” says Mukherjee. “It’s Saunders who puts the knife in her [Korchinski-Paquet’s] hand.”

A statement released by the family on the circumstances surrounding the death says “there was no knife present and no assault taking place” when police arrived. 

According to the family’s version of events, “multiple police officers” followed Korchinski-Paquet into the apartment – she said she had to use the bathroom – following a conversation in the hallway that included her mother and brother. A “commotion” was heard a minute or two later followed by Korchinski-Paquet crying out, “Mom help, mom help, mom help.” Then there was silence. 

The family says that, “Eventually an officer came out of the unit, knocked on the neighbour’s door, and stated to the family that she is over at the neighbour’s house or in the unit below. After a few moments the mother then asked the officers if she is on the ground. An officer went into the unit, then came back out and told her mother, ‘Yes, she is on the ground.’” The family says the death could have been prevented. 

Saunders has noted that a Section 11 review will be conducted after the SIU’s probe is completed to determine whether procedures and policies were followed. Mukherjee is not holding out faith in that review given the chief has already stated publicly that he believes police were walking into a dangerous situation. 

Mukherjee suggests a coroner’s inquest may be the only way to get the full picture of what happened. But that would take years. Some are not willing to wait that long. 

The demand for answers has turned up the heat on the SIU, which is now being asked by police and the family of Korchinski-Paquet to dispense with business as usual and release information on its probe as it becomes available – presumably so that we can all be assured things are on the up and up. 

It’s a big shift for an organization that – save for a handful of former directors willing to push the envelope – has made confidentiality its modus operandi. And after spending the better part of 2018 preparing for the changes that were supposed to be coming after Tulloch’s report, is back to square one. The SIU has also just undergone a change in leadership with former deputy director Joseph Martino taking over in March. 


SECRECY VERSUS ACCOUNTABILITY

The SIU has issued a number of statements on Korchinski-Paquet’s death. None of them mentions a knife. 

SIU spokesperson Monica Hudon confirms in an email to NOW that the SIU has spoken with the subject officer and five witness officers in the case. (Four civilian witnesses have also come forward). 

But as per current protocol, the SIU is not releasing any information on whether the police have provided statements or turned over their notes of the incident.

The current systems of accountability being what they are, it’s difficult to have confidence the SIU will be able to answer all the questions arising from this case.

Part of that has to do with the fact the SIU’s mandate is narrowly focused to find criminal wrongdoing, which is a high threshold when it comes to cops. The SIU has rarely found fault with police actions. In fact, more than 90 per cent of the cases it investigates end in officers being cleared. The SIU is also handcuffed by legislation setting out its responsibilities.

The Police Services Act says police must “fully cooperate” with the SIU. But that’s not so simple in practice. There’s nothing the SIU can do to compel an officer to cooperate if the officer refuses. A police chief may lay a discipline charge, but that rarely happens. The Officer of the Independent Police Review Director, which reviews public complaints against police, can sanction a police officer for obstructing an investigation. So too can the provincial ombudsman, but not the SIU. 

A subject officer is also not required to turn over their notes. The justification for that has to do with the notion that an officer has the right, like anyone else, not to incriminate themself. That argument doesn’t hold up when you consider the immense power given police to use lethal force. 

To be sure, whether the notes of an officer will be admissible in a future court preceding is up to a judge. The Harnick Directive, named after Mike Harris-era Attorney-General Charles Harnick, also orders that notes should not be used by prosecutors to impeach an officer’s testimony.

Tulloch recommended expanding the definition of an officer’s duty to cooperate. But secrecy continues to surround the workings of the SIU, right down to not releasing the names of officers who are charged in the rare instances that it does happen. Its final reports are also confidential.

Tammy Landau, associate professor of criminology at Ryerson University and an expert in police oversight, says the balance between protecting evidence and the public’s right to know what’s happening in investigations has historically been skewed in favour of police.

“The SIU are seen as independent, but the time they have historically taken to get their act together has undermined any confidence that there isn’t either collusion or lack of priority on these cases. In this example, you’re talking about a person that was emotionally distressed and the history of Toronto police with people in emotional distress has been abysmal.”

Barriffe says there’s a double standard at play when it comes to police cooperation with the SIU. “They ask the community to speak up when someone is shot, but use every excuse in the book when its one of their own.”

Some city councillors are now calling for an independent investigation of Korchinski-Paquet’s death to be conducted outside the SIU. City council, in fact, supported a motion by Mike Layton and Kristyn Wong-Tam last year calling on the province’s Anti-Racism Directorate to review the handling of SIU cases involving racialized people. But that request got lost in the Ford government’s move to reduce the size of the directorate.


REIMAGINING THE ROLE OF POLICE

Diverlus wonders what could have been had Korchinski-Paquet’s had there been other community-driven alternatives been in place – the kind envisioned by policing reformers – and she had been able to call someone other than police. 

He says that we can’t continue to see police “as the de facto be all and end all” when it comes to public safety. That reimagining of the role of police goes for members of Black communities as well, says Diverlus, who he notes expressed anxiety and balked as well when BLM-TO demanded the removal of police from Pride and Toronto schools. 

He says that Black communities “would also rather not have to continue talking about anti-Black racism. Hopefully what’s happened is a wake-up call.”

Barriffe is more circumspect about future reform. “When I look at my four-year-old and see the gasoline being poured on fires [by Donald Trump in the U.S.], I wonder whether he’s going to be fighting the same fight 20 years from now… it’s hard.”

He says we’ve been talking about community-based policing and diversity in the police for too long. “It’s just window dressing at this point.” 

He says the city can start changing the current dynamic by putting money that’s going to policing into decent housing. And the police can start by holding someone accountable for Korchinski-Paquet’s death. “You can’t spin this.”


@nowtoronto